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Guide to Georgian Woodcarving

The art of woodcarving is far from dead in Georgian Spitalfields. There is much new work to admire in Hawksmoor’s magnificent Christ Church, recently restored, and more beautiful examples in the splendid doorcases lining the principal streets in the neighbourhood. There is also Roland, my carved rat but more of him later. Even in the early 18th century, when Spitalfields was first developed as a smart City suburb, woodcarving was an expensive luxury and used for a few showy details with interior carving on cornices, chimneypieces and staircase treadends confined to the grander houses.

* Find more on restoring Georgian property on our dedicated webpage

In the 1970s, when these houses began to be restored after decades of neglect, there were relatively few pieces of historic carving left. The best were a number of doorcases and some good carved fire surrounds. Of the latter group, the finest examples are the splendid 1760s Rococo fireplace at 19 Princelet Street and a 1720s surround, delightfully embellished with architectural carving, at the Dennis Severs House and Museum on Folgate Street. Recently, a number of accomplished wood carvers have worked in the area.

The exquisite carved oak gallery brackets at Christ Church some replicated, some restored are by Gonzalez & Harms, a family firm based in Chard, Somerset. The work is of such quality that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the original 18th century carving from the new. Perhaps the finest example of recent work can be seen on Fournier Street. The doorcase bracket with its little cherub peeping out from under an exuberant scroll of foliage is by Robert Davies, a brilliantly gifted woodcarver and sculptor who has worked on a number of the best houses in Spitalfields. Mr Davies is unusual in that he can produce freer, creative carving as well as architectural work.

This bracket is one of two pairs embellishing neighbouring houses, and shows the full range of his skills. Sadly, after suffering thefts from his workshop, Mr Davies moved out of Spitalfields and is now based in Cornwall. A few years ago, when I was in the midst of restoring my own Spitalfields house, I put up a visiting American architect in the guest bedroom. At that time, with the floors up and the drains broken, the basement became home, temporarily, to a small family of rats. The most sociable of this furry brood was an enormous fellow whom I nicknamed Roland. Roland liked company and tended only to appear when I was entertaining. My American guest had the misfortune one day to encounter Roland in the downstairs lavatory.

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A few months later, I took delivery of a small parcel. Inside was a magnificently carved and painted ‘decorative’ rat. It was Roland, immortalised in oak. He had been commissioned by my friend from the conservation consultant and carver Hugh Harrison. Roland hangs at the top of the basement stairs, scaring visitors only marginally less than his furry predecessor – a tribute to the skill of his creator and the living art of woodcarving. Gonzalez & Harms (01460 65611); Huge Harrison Conservation (01398 341 382).

* Find more on restoring Georgian property on our dedicated webpage